Tool technology is ever evolving, and one of the latest trends in automotive power tools is an increase in popularity of cordless, battery-powered tools.
While traditional pneumatic tools and air compressors will likely forever have a place in the shop, more and more technicians are opting for the portable, cordless versions of their favourite air tools.
Still, many technicians are convinced that electric power tools don’t compare in terms of sheer power and torque, but many manufacturers’ electric tools are exceeding expectations with their latest technology.
With the progressed development of lithium-ion, the latest battery-operated tools can pack just as much of a punch as their traditional competitors. Jody Baker, product manager at Matco Tools explains, “Our cordless line is very powerful. Our quarter-inch cordless impact is more powerful than our quarter-inch air impact.”
Baker says Matco’s three-eighth-inch and half-inch cordless impacts are comparable in strength. The brand’s 18v three-eighth-inch impact wrench can deliver up to 325 ft. lbs. of breakaway torque, which isn’t far behind the air tool comparison at 370 ft. lbs.
Lithium-ion, the platform that just about all battery-operated power tools use these days, has dramatically changed the market. It has a number of advantages over older battery technologies, such as nickel cadmium, like a substantially higher power density – or power to weight ratio. This has resulted in smaller, lighter battery packs that offer up to twice the run time, along with a longer lifespan and better operating characteristics.
Walter Booth, director of IC national account sales for Milwaukee Tools explains, “We’ve re-invented lithium every year since 2008, so some of the performance we’re getting out of our battery-operated tools today outperform even corded tools in the market. The technology has really sort of leapfrogged itself all the way up there so in some cases you could actually get rid of your cord and go straight to a cordless platform.”
Lithium-ion tools also eliminate the “battery memory” issues associated with ni-cad. In the past, if you charge your ni-cad tool after only using 80 percent of its capacity, 80 percent would become the new maximum. The same goes for charging cycles. If you consistently charge a ni-cad battery to only 80 percent, the battery “remembers” and 80 percent becomes the new max. Tools that utilize lithium-ion technology can be re-charged at any time, regardless of its state of discharge.
Lithium-ion also never “leaks” energy. If you set aside a fully charged ni-cad tool for a day or two, it will need to be recharged before you can use it again. With a lithium-ion battery pack, a fully charged battery will never lose its charge without use.
Lithium-ion also offers a considerable environment benefit at the end of its life, unlike its heavy metal predecessor, it’s not going into landfills.
An important factor in battery technology that’s changing the game is charging time versus running time. In the past, technicians that opted for battery-powered tools would find themselves frustrated when the battery drains faster than the battery can charge. In order to fully utilize battery-powered tools, the purchase of several additional batteries and chargers was required in order to have full power for a full day. Now, because of advancements in charging time and running time, these lithium-ion tools will last much longer than it takes one battery pack to charge.
“Charge times for our 12-volt batteries are anywhere from 25-30 minutes to fully charge. If you get into an 18-volt technology, you’re closer to 45 minutes to an hour to charge,” says Booth. “The nice thing is technology is so advanced that you can get through the full performance of that battery prior to that battery expiring, and your other battery is ready to go.”
Now that these tools are equipped with the latest in battery technology, technicians are able to truly benefit from the convenience and accessibility of a cordless tool. Most obviously, when it comes to mobility and ergonomics. Compared to pneumatic airline tools, cordless, battery-powered tools are lighter to hold, and they eliminate the need to drag around (and potentially trip over) a clumsy airline. Not to mention you can drastically reduce the amount of time you spend wrapping, unwrapping, detangling and cleaning your lines. Cordless tools also broaden your technician’s mobility when the cords do not restrict them.
From a safety standpoint, cordless, battery operated tools also have the advantage. Aside from being lighter and therefore easier on the wrists, elbows and shoulders, battery-operated tools are also much quieter than the traditional pneumatic versions. An automotive shop is a noisy place, and while many noisy tools are essential, you can reduce the noise pollution in your shop by opting for some battery-powered tools where possible.
The final hurdle when comparing cordless, battery-powered tools and its pneumatic versions is pricing. While on average, cordless tools are more expensive than pneumatic because of the additional expense of batteries and chargers. However, most manufacturers offer “bare” cordless tool options. Once you’ve purchased the charger and a battery, you’re able to buy any compatible cordless tool itself. Booth explains, “If you take out the cost of two batteries and the charger, and you just buy the tool itself, you can use that on your existing platform. So, that helps to reduce the cost, and ultimately the barrier of entry for technicians out there.”
The same applies for Matco’s line. Its “bare” cordless tools are actually less expensive than the air versions.
Many manufacturers want to push their cordless tools into the market. As a result, these products often go on sale, and the reduced price is often very comparable to a pneumatic version, battery and charger included.
While a total domination of cordless tools may not be in the near future, as younger technicians enter the trade, many of them are embracing new technology and steering away from pneumatics.
When it comes to power tools in the shop, cordless, battery-powered options are more appealing than ever before.
Coming technology: brushless motors
You don’t see brushless power tools in too many automotive repair bays… but that could change as the technology matures and costs go down.
The expectation is that brushless technology could extend motor life by a factor of 10 while delivering 50% more run-time between charges, and about 25% more power.
The “brushes” they’re doing away with are not the soft bristly kind you might imagine. Instead they’re small carbon (or other soft material) components, designed to deliver electricity to revolving part of the motor. Spring-loaded against the commutator, they create a fair bit of friction and sparking, so they wear out with use.
Brushless motors, on the other hand, use a permanent magnet positioned inside the motor. Internal circuitry creates a revolving magnetic field in the stator that causes the shaft to spin, friction free. This results in less energy loss, less heat build-up, and longer motor life. And brushless motors can also be made to be more powerful. Because the copper windings are on the outside of the motor configuration, there’s room to make them larger.
It’s not new technology. Brushless motors have been around in a number of applications since the 1960s, but have only recently been put to use in power tools.
As for when you’ll see them for automotive repair applications, there are still some cost barriers to clear. Frankly, it takes more electronics to manage the motor.